Microsoft has opened enrolment for its Microsoft Partner Program, a new programme announced in October that will combine Microsoft's traditional partners with those it inherited when it bought Great Plains Software and Navision.

Microsoft bills its new programme as the biggest overhaul in the way it deals with partners since the launch of its Solution Provider programme in 1993.

The Microsoft Partner Program is set to go into effect next month and will gradually be built out over the course of 15 to 18 months, the company has said. Microsoft Business Solutions partners, which include the former Great Plains and Navision partners, will join in July 2004, the company has said.

The new partner program recognises partners at three levels: registered, certified and gold certified. Each level has different requirements. Partners can highlight specialisations by enrolling in what Microsoft calls "Microsoft Competencies," of which eleven will be available.

The specialisation is not only meant to distinguish partners to services and software buying customers, but also to Microsoft. The software maker plans to focus partner communications and support based on the competencies.

Beginning in April 2004, partners will be able to earn "Partner Points" to elevate their status. Points are earned by meeting specific criteria in a variety of categories, such as certifications, customer satisfaction, specialisation and number of tested Microsoft-based applications, according to Redmond, Washington, company.

Existing Microsoft partners at the "certified" and "gold" levels as well as "certified" Microsoft Business Solutions partners will be 'grandfathered' in to the new programme at their current levels, Microsoft said.